Uruk Vase Reveals Order of the Cradle of Civilization

Backstory

What is known as the Urban Revolution started in Mesopotamia about five thousand years ago. People started to move to cities because of the area’s abundant resources. Their basic needs met, the inhabitants of the place could allow their talents to flourish. Writing was invented by the Sumerians. In this place, known as the fertile crescent, the first stone tablets with writing that have been found record real estate transactions.

Map of Ancient Mesopotamia showing location of Assyria, Babylonia and Sumer.
The Cradle of Civilization

In the desert world of Mesopotamia, complex systems of trade existed between what is now Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. They had to be able to track ownership of goods, so writing was invented. This influences the Art of the period. Mesopotamia was located in the rich soil between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

The Uruk Revolution

Art historians call that time the Uruk Revolution. They call it a revolution because it was the first time that people lived together in urban cities. The Uruk Vase was created about 5,000 years ago in the largest city of its time, a place known as Arak in the Bible but Uruk in other places. Gilgamesh of legend built the city walls.

Symbols on the Vase

At a little over a meter high, the vase is sculpted out of alabaster, a precious stone of the time. Because alabaster was so hard to find, it is commonly thought that the vase served a ceremonial purpose. The story that it tells in its carved exterior reveals the spiritual beliefs of the people who made it and much about the social structure of its makers.

The vase displays a hierarchical view of the world. The carvings that are arranged in levels around the circumference of the vase display that hierarchy. First, the lower of its multiple sections has water which is the basis of life, then plants, and male and female sheep. Scholars believe that these were placed on the vase to symbolize what the greatest concerns were for the people of that community: their harvests and their livestock.

The water is the source of all life and for an agrarian community like that of Uruk, its importance had to have been deeply felt. So, on the vase, the base on which all else stands is a depiction of water. Above that are all the plants that the people’s livestock ate. Then, there is a row of sheep. The next level has a series of people and the top level has a carving of the Goddess Innana. She was the fertility Goddess of Sumeria.

Bas relief stone sculpture of Ancient Sumerian Goddess of Fertility, Innana. Goddess is depicted naked holding metal objects in her hands and a headdress on her head.
Goddess Innana

Another important facet about the symbolism located on the vase is found on the top level. Located in the top section of the vase, there is a King and the Goddess Innana celebrating a marriage ceremony. The Kings exerted control over the people of Uruk by tying their rule to the Goddess. They claimed that because they were married to the Goddess, they were of divine nature and deserved their status in society. Also, by tying the land to the King’s health, he could say that if he was not well cared for, the land would suffer thereby keeping himself well maintained through fear.

Finally, the Uruk Vase shows an orderly arrangement of the world. It represents an age in which there was a definite line between truth and fiction. Later, doubts and skepticism about the nature of reality came into the human culture, but at that time, there was an order to life that the Uruk Vase depicted.

One of the sources for this post is this video by Diana McDonald. Video

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